Rediscovering the Glamour of Art Deco
Many people may only be familiar with Art Deco through the famous blockbuster film The Great Gatsby or the architecture of such buildings as the Empire State Building or Radio City Music Hall in New York City. However, the Art Deco period is more than just speakeasy celebrations, geometric lines, flappers and decorative sculptures, it’s a historical period that brought on immense change in the U.S. in 20s and 30s with new ideas that affected many areas of design and culture.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Roberta Nusim, president of the Art Deco Society of New York, about the influence of Art Deco on American culture as well as how her group is working to cultivate enthusiasm of this era in Generation Y.
“Art Deco was at its peak of popularity in the 20s and 30s between the two World Wars,” says Nusim. “It started in Paris after World War I when the French government decided to hold a worldwide exhibition of the decorative arts called Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. It was a wonderful exhibition where people in the arts and design industry came from all over the world to exhibit.” This event epitomized what came to be known decades later as Art Deco, a modern style characterized by a streamlined classicism, geometric and symmetric compositions, which by the 1930s led to a sleek machine-age look.
“Although the U.S. didn’t participate in the French exposition, many Americans were in attendance and returned to the states with new design ideas and materials to export back home.” Nusim continues, “Everyone felt the opportunities were limitless and our design should reflect that feeling. This is when the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center were designed and constructed. There was also great sense of excitement that affected many different markets such as fashion, literature, home décor, industrial design, and music. It was a very glamorous time.”
The Art Deco style was used widely in consumer products such as automobiles, furniture, cookware, china, textiles, jewelry, clocks, and electronic items such as radios and telephones. During the 30s, Art Deco was used extensively for public works projects, railway stations, ocean liners (including the Île de France, Queen Mary, and Normandie), movie palaces, and amusement parks.
“When World War II hit, it made a real impact on how people viewed the world, causing Art Deco to decline in popularity. People’s lifestyles changed to become more sensible and streamlined. The decorative aspects of the 20s and 30s were frowned upon and it was perceived by some as inappropriately luxurious,” says Nusim.In the late 70s to early 80s, a resurgence in Art Deco came specifically because of Miami Beach. South Beach has a large collection of Art Deco buildings, with some thirty blocks of hotels and apartment houses dating from the 20s to the 30s. “After World War II, many of these buildings were ignored and eventually fell into disrepair. So when the bulldozers came to tear them down, a women named Barbara Baer Capitman protested to save them. From her actions, the buildings were, over time, restored to their former glory.” In 1979, the Miami Beach Architectural District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nearly all the buildings have been restored and painted in their original pastel colors.
Through Capitman’s measures, a renewed interest in the 20s and 30s spread throughout the U.S. and people started looking at preserving Art Deco buildings. This also introduced the need for Art Deco Societies around the country. In 1976, Capitman organized the Miami Design Preservation League, which is the oldest Art Deco Society in the world.
“The Art Deco Society of New York was started in 1982,” says Nusim. “We preserve, protect and celebrate New York’s Art Deco treasures. Our members enjoy activities that embrace the many aspects of Art Deco. These include educational events, such as lectures and walking tours, and celebratory events like speakeasy parties. We also document the buildings that were constructed during the Art Deco period in all of the five boroughs of New York.”
The Art Deco Society of New York has several new initiatives for 2015 for their membership as well as to attract a younger audience. “We have a brand new website filled with resources, such as our Art Deco Building Registry and Map, which documents buildings in all of the five boroughs. We also have a list of dealers from around the country that specialize in Art Deco merchandise and a list of books on various topics about the Art Deco period.”
Another aspect the organization is steadily growing is their involvement in preservation “We mobilize attention to endangered Art Deco buildings in the city and help guide the residents in restoration of the buildings to their original grandeur.”
In addition, the Art Deco Society is committed to engaging young people and educating them about this period. “We started Young Deco Friends last year and have over 250 members today, under 35 years old. We also introduced a social media initiative. Today, we reach over 6,000 Deco enthusiasts in 90 countries around the world who visit our website more than 250 times each day. We have more than 3,400 likes on Facebook and almost 900 followers on Twitter since its launch in January 2014.”
For more information on the Art Deco period or the Art Deco Society of New York, visit artdeco.org.